Recently, Fadimatou Noutchemo Simo, founder of the Young African Aviation Professional Association (YAAPA) and winner of the ‘High Flyer’ category of the inaugural International Air Transport Association, IATA Diversity & Inclusion Awards sponsored by Qatar Airways. In this interview with ANTHONY AWUNOR, explains her journey to the top.
Generally, women have done so well in aviation, what is your view about having more women in the aviation, to engender safety and growth?
First we have to understand that in our African culture, the female child has always been given a secondary position.
But tendencies gradually changing through the different activities to raise awareness on gender equality and methods put in place to encourage the female child to go to school. So, it is our believe that with the current situation, seeing us like example and a lot of role models that we have across Africa like the Poppy of the civil aviation in Nigeria, Refilwe Lebwada of Girl Fly Africa in South Africa Yvonne the CEO of Rwandair.
We have the former minister of Aviation in Ghana, Ms. Cecilia. These are emerging figures that stand up as role model to make us believe that the change is gradually on the way and we will get there. So, when you see female pilot like Koki Mutung of Kenya Airways, it also gives us indication, Kgomotso in botstwana is doing a lot.
So, we have all these women who are taking things up and really raising awareness and having positions. I will not forget Rejoice who is the President of Women in Aviation in Nigeria who has been doing a lot. I personally believe that when we women involve ourselves, trust ourselves instead of fighting against ourselves, definitely we will stand out as role models and the little African girl will say ‘ I want to be like aunty this or that’.
Aviation in Africa seems to be in projection of what will happen tomorrow. Do you think in terms of infrastructure and dearth of manpower, we are prepared to move with the passenger traffic?
Sincerely, I will like to differentiate the regions. One thing that we need to know is that gap differences that exist within our regions. Southern African countries have a better developed infrastructure that can accommodate the tourism growth and passenger growth. Western English speaking countries are on the rise also. We recently saw the modernization of Ghana airport, Nigeria also with all the infrastructure that have been constructed.
But all these smaller countries really rely on the expertise of others when we want to Africa countries sharing their strategies, best practices on how they became modern. We look at Togo, we see the infrastructure of their airport transforming as a hub. We want to see multiplication of such actions and we believe that since the same actors are walking around Africa, most of the expertise from Northern Africa will come down to Western and Central Africa as well as Southern and East Africa.
So, with the support of the African Union in putting aviation in the centre of its agenda 2063, we basically believe that if even we will not immediately see the infrastructure development, because it does not come overnight, we are in the process of improving our infrastructure and getting the know-how to facilitate growth in Africa.
What is your feeling about this award and how are you going to manage what comes with it?
My plea is, my success today is not Fadi’s success- it is an African success that really confirm the vision I initially had. When I did YAAPA 54, it was with the aim of getting 54 Africans dedicated and passionate about aviation, to create a platform of exchange. Not only women but also the youths. I said the youth with the focus on girls to get them more in. Sincerely, this award comes like the surprise I was not expecting.
I reach out again to Africans who are passionate and honest about really wanting to make us progress to join their hands with me. I am very open, so that we can see how to create a confederation to benefit from all what YAAPA is going to get, because YAAPA was created for Africans and it has to have honest, transparent, dedicated and passionate professionals who really want to join the spirit of YAAPA to move forward.
There is dearth of manpower in Africa, how is your organization going to maximize what you are doing to fill those gaps in the areas of having expertise, to increase manpower development not only in Cameroon but also in West Africa?
I will be honest with you because we have been making underground studies and exchange with young aviation professionals in Africa and the sad thing is, because of the development of aviation in different countries, we found some countries that have saturation of manpower and we found others that do not have manpower.
We have been pleading and engaging with African Union to sit with the heads of states or to implement also an exceptional work permit for aviation professionals so that this can enable the countries with saturated professionals to freely work in other countries to sustain growth. Take for example in Nigeria. You will say, ‘we are lacking skilled workers’, but in Nigeria you still find engineers, pilots who do not have opportunities to fly.
I remember in one conference, I reached out to the airlines saying you ask for minimum of flying hours which Africans who have succeeded to get their licenses don’t immediately have. So why don’t you give the opportunity to these professionals who have been able to sacrifice to train, to be able to help? In a nutshell, Africa has all the resources, we just need to appropriately do the repartitioning to implement the strategy because we have the schools, we have the professionals, we have the need and if we give the opportunity to the skill power to be employed in Africa, we are going to have succession plan implemented.
The $25,000 award prize, do you already have a blueprint on how you are going to implement the fund?
Yes. We already have plans of having YAAPA community centres. These community centers are for underprivileged kids especially, to be able to have access to aviation as well as tourism through a digital library. Our target was to get some locations in the rural areas where we could build centres with solar system and put some computers like two three and see if we reach out and get more (fund). We can reach out to some of the children because we have access to internet in some of the rural areas, making like a digital library for them so that they also can understand and be part of it.
The $25,000 is not going to be enough for these projects you are embarking on. How are you going to source for more fund and who are the people that are already reaching out to you as a result of this award?
Well, I have everyone promising but the reality is for the past five years in all my efforts, I have promises that never matured. So, we remain very realistic in saying, ‘we are not going to spend the money uselessly.’ We are going to keep a constant report because we believe in what we want for Africa and so, we will select one country in each of the regions to implement something, because if our work get recognition, then people will see that we are serious about what we are doing and maybe support will come.
In your presentation, you said you joined aviation industry nine years ago. In a short period, you have made so much impact. What were the things that propelled you and why did you choose aviation to do what you are doing?
First of all, I joined aviation by chance. I was looking for a job, my country was re-launching the new airline and they needed an administration manager. I joined in 2010 as a first female senior staff in administration. We have six months for the launch of the airline and I got so involved and passionate about always succeeding in everything I undertake. We went through the odds and the challenges to set up the inaugural flight in March 28th, 2011.
And shortly after then, I was sent as a logistics and procurement manager in maintenance and engineering. I have B.sc in Economics. Logistics is all about purchasing what engineering and production needed and making it arrived as soon as possible to reduce the Aircraft on Ground (AOG) time. So, the biggest challenge I faced was that, there was no female senior staff in maintenance and I was not having an engineering background. So the males always want to dominate and challenged whatever I did.
So, I had to first reeducate them on understanding that believing in them as the professionals and just doing the logistics and procurement as per their request, I do not need to be an engineer. And this was still a challenge, so with all the insults at times I had. Colleagues were really mean to what I could do. I said to them, ‘If I had known when I was in school about the difference fields in aviation, I am sure I would have been an aviation professional’.
Then, I got to understand the important role that aviation has in the development of all economies and I said, “If Africa has always been classified as developing countries, we need to ensure that we try to identify which are the industries that play an important role in this development.”
By ANTHONY AWUNOR